Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with James E. Holshouser Jr., January 31, 1998. Interview C-0328-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Governor as CEO and cheerleader

Holshouser describes his vision of the role of governor, which is sometimes a CEO and sometimes a cheerleader. "It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out" the problems the state was facing, he argues, but it does take a good manager to make sure the state's programs are running efficiently. He also sought to make himself available to North Carolinians, even if they often petitioned him about personal matters. This passage offers a solid perspective on Holshouser's governing philosophy.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with James E. Holshouser Jr., January 31, 1998. Interview C-0328-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

JACK FLEER:
So you were getting fairly regular feedback on what the major issues were and on how people were perceiving your performance. Did that cause you at any time to change what you had been planning to do on public policy?
JAMES E. HOLSHOUSER, JR.:
Not a lot. Most of that time it just reflected the same view that I was having about how things were seeing the same things that I was. It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out if this was a problem it needed to be talked about. For instance when we had the energy crisis and we had the lines at the gas pumps and that sort of thing. That was an unexpected thing. We hadn't had it since World War II probably and in a different way then. And it became apparent that whatever solution we came up with that neither the press nor the people was going to accept it unless it included those things with the green flags where if you had an odd number of license plates you could get it on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and if you didn't you would go on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday which I thought was just insane. But any rate when we did the energy package things, we put that in there. Not because I thought it was a good idea because I didn't see that it could hurt. But it was obvious that people were going to feel like we hadn't done what we were suppose to if we didn't have that in there. And that's just a small thing; that is almost a blip on a graph in a way.
JACK FLEER:
How do you explain in a sense why it is that the ideas that you had and presumably others in your administration had were essentially the same ideas that the public had?
JAMES E. HOLSHOUSER, JR.:
Well I guess part of this is that as opposed to the presidency I think people have a little bit different view about the governorship. Now they think he ought to be in charge of the governmental operation. I think a large part of what I did had to do with that as opposed to being the speaker in the bully pulpit. I think there is a certain extent to which the governor has to try to help lift people's eyes and goal level some, and he has to lift their spirit. But I think for the most part, people view him as the CEO in charge of governing of the state. Now, not the state, the state government. There are things they expect. They expect that when you have a bad situation like with a storm like we did last week, they expect the governor would be up in his helicopter looking around. That kind of thing. It took me a while to figure that out. The first couple of those I didn't do that. I heard from people about why I hadn't showed up. And if there is some crisis that is effecting large numbers of people either statewide or in specific areas I think they expect a showing of the flag. I view that if you talk about the bully pulpit. I view that the governor is the chief cheerleader for the state's economic efforts, development efforts, for education on the broad scale and in a lot of other areas though. You do ribbon cuttings that don't amount to much except for the people that were there who are glad you came and did it. But if you are seeing to the extent that government is involved in these various issues that it is performing efficiently, that is what people expect you to do. And all the stuff over the last three months over the Department of Transportation is not because Governor Hunt has not been in the bully pulpit it is because people don't think the state government has been operating the way it should. And that is when they feel like you have let them down.
JACK FLEER:
You say you had these sort of feeling the pulse kinds of groups. You also had some "people's days" that you organized. What was your purpose in that and did it achieve the purpose that you had in mind?
JAMES E. HOLSHOUSER, JR.:
Well the idea was in sort of a populist thing. That if the governor is going to be spending his time addressing those big problems that we talked about and meeting with industry leaders and that sort of thing, there ought to be some way that the average person on the street who has a problem with the state or the government in some way or another ought to get the feeling that they never have a chance to see the governor. So we just set these things up. It wasn't the first. Some other governors had done it. A lot of plagiarism in these sort of things. But we did it once a month. Started in Raleigh and moved different places about the state. It was a fascinating diversity of people and motivations came to see us, we just took them first come first served. And to the best of my knowledge we never ran people away. I don't think we ever got to the place that at 4:00 in the afternoon they said we are only going to be here for another hour and that is only going to mean another twelve people, so the rest of you have got to go home. We just didn't do that. We stayed until the line ended.
JACK FLEER:
Would these people tend to focus on particular problems, that were particular to them or would they talk to you about broader issues?
JAMES E. HOLSHOUSER, JR.:
Almost invariably personal things which didn't make it invalid. We had an ombudsmen staff that was geared when we got back to Raleigh. They would take those notes and call an ombudsmen coordinator in each department and say, "We got this problem. What can you do." In a lot of cases people had already written somebody in the state government and nothing had happened. The unfortunate thing is that those of us who have been in government if we have a problem, hey, I got a state telephone directory out there at the desk. I know which department to call and I can usually look up and figure out which division to call within a department. The average person on the street hasn't got a clue. They call down to what they think is the Department of Environment. It may or may not get the water quality or they may not get ground water, and so they have been bounced around from one place or another. And these folks can generally follow up. Because they have got the clout in the governor's office behind it, people aren't going to ignore them and so they follow up. But you also found and the more you did these the more it tended to deteriorate into a request to get your road paved or a request to get your brother out of prison, or a request to take out the plate the FBI had put in your head.
JACK FLEER:
Very personal. Did you feel that you benefited any from these, from the standpoint of understanding people's policy or substantive concerns?
JAMES E. HOLSHOUSER, JR.:
If I am honest about it, not as much as I would hope. A lot of these things were so personal, personally related, that what you were really doing was spending a day each month to give people to have just a chance to have their problems addressed even if it wasn't satisfactory. But you made sure somebody looked after it. Occasionally you would get a good idea. One guy came and talked about old abandoned cars that were left on the beaches out on the Outer Banks. He had an idea about how to go about that and we put that in a motion and it helped. That was sort of an exception rather than the rule. And invariably you would have a few campaign supporters who would come in just to say hello.